Watercourses, such as ditches and streams, that are not classified as 'Main River' or 'Critical Ordinary Watercourses' are termed 'Ordinary Watercourses'.
The landowner is responsible for the maintenance of 'Ordinary Watercourses'. Landowners are also ultimately responsible for 'Main Rivers' and 'Critical Ordinary Watercourses' but have the support of the Environment Agency. If your property / land contains or is adjacent to a watercourse, then you are legally defined to have 'Riparian Responsibilities' under the Land Drainage Act 1991 and 1994.
Your rights as a landowner with riparian responsibilities
In summary, you are responsible for ensuring the free flow of water, without obstruction, through regular maintenance of the watercourse. This has numerous benefits, not least of which is to reduce the risk of flooding.
The importance of regular maintenance cannot be emphasised enough. If you fail to maintain the free flow of a watercourse, and flooding occurs as a result, you could be found liable for compensating any damage caused – more information is provided on the 'Importance of a well maintained watercourse' page. If you are concerned about the state of any watercourse that is not your responsibility, then you should refer to the page titled 'Blocked, infilled or poorly maintained watercourses'.The Environment Agency has produced a guide entitled 'Living on the Edge', which explains in detail the rights and responsibilities.
Please also read our guide Rights and Responsibilities of Living by a Watercourse [pdf] 208KB to help you establish which part of the watercourse you are responsible for. We have in force our own byelaws relating to activities in or adjacent to 'Ordinary Watercourses'. See Land Drainage Bylaws [pdf] 43KB
A poorly maintained watercourse
Any works in or near water must assess the ecological impact and clearly demonstrate that there is no detrimental effect to the ecological value of the watercourse. You must consider factors such as protected species and habitat and ensure you comply with any protected species legislation. You can discuss these conservation issues with the Environment Agency's Fisheries, Recreation and Biodiversity Team.
Maintenence in progress
Health and safety must be your top priority when carrying out watercourse maintenance. You must risk assess any works you undertake and do everything practically possible to minimise risk.